I was watching a really bad movie the other night (“The Great Outdoors,” with John Candy and Dan Aykroyd), and I was about to turn it off when it became clear that even lousy stories can have great lessons. Here’s the truth I was reminded of: Ever since man first walked the earth, he has wanted to break free of tethers and wires.
So what did a brainless tale about bald grizzly bears and water skiing have to do with the history of mankind? I’ll give you a hint: It involved a cell phone. The movie was made 20 years ago, in 1988, which was the year that technology emerged into American life. And what I saw in the movie was Dan Aykroyd sneaking into the bathroom, putting a huge, log-size wireless phone to his ear and making lots of fancy financial trades with his broker.
The point of showing the phone was to demonstrate how Aykroyd’s rich and powerful character had no attachments — a wireless life was a symbol of enormous power. Sure, his phone was a foot long and weighed eight pounds and looked like you’d use it to call in air support, but it was still wireless. He could go anywhere and talk to anybody. He had real power.
But now that moment is almost quaint. We have wireless everything — telephones, modems, earpieces, audio speakers, you name it.
But there has been one, very frustrating exception, a stubborn technology problem that has refused all engineers’ attempts to solve it: wireless electric power.
In other words, it’s impossible to send electricity wirelessly flying through the air to light a lightbulb. Or to charge your cell phone. Or anything else. Try standing in the middle of a room with a 40-watt bulb in your hand — you’ll be waiting a long time before the electricity in the wall can leap into the lightbulb and light it up.
But this just in: Two revolutionary breakthroughs could mean that real, wireless electricity is upon us.
I’m proud to say I put the first commercially available wireless power technology on TODAY more than a year ago, when I showed the “Wildcharger,” a flat pad covered in low-voltage metal strips. To charge up your phone (or your iPod), or any number of devices all at once, and without a power cable, you just placed the devices on top of it.
The beauty of the Wildcharger is that you can put as many kinds of devices down on it as you want, and they’ll all charge at the same time. The power flowing through the Wildcharger flows into every single device’s battery and gives it exactly as much electric charge as it needs. And if you touch the metal strips with your hand by mistake, or drop keys or coins on it, you won’t get zapped — the electronic strips are “smart” — they sense that a nonelectronic device has been placed there, and shut off instantly.
But while that technology had no power cables between your phone or iPod and the Wildcharger itself, there still had to be physical contact between the Wildcharger and the device.
A more recent breakthrough is called “magnetic inductance,” which takes advantage of this basic fact: If you move a magnet back and forth across a wire, you can make electricity flow inside the wire, without actually touching the wire.
A company called Fulton Innovation has created what they call the “eCoupled” system, which is nothing more than a box that creates a moving magnetic field. Imagine holding a magnet in your hand and shaking it back and forth quickly — since the moving magnetic field makes electric current flow through any BlackBerry or iPod or cell phone placed near it (your phone can be as far as a few inches away from the eCoupled system, and a foot or two to the right or left and still get a charge), you’re starting to see a true wireless electrical current.
They’ve already made it work in an ingenious way. Fulton’s eSpring water treatment system uses a lightbulb (its UV rays kill bacteria) inside a water tank to zap all contaminants in the water. The trick is that they send electric current through the lightbulb from outside the water tank, through about half an inch of plastic. So, no wires to corrode, no rust, but plenty of electricity.
Perhaps the most exciting of all the wireless charging options comes from a company called Powercast, which has figured out a way to send power over a few feet, not a few inches. How? Radio waves. That’s right: radio frequencies that can spur electric current as far as seven or eight feet away.
The scientific name for it is “resonant inductive coupling,” but what it really means is, they figured out how to send an intensely focused radio signal at a magnet that was tuned to “hear” that frequency, and then move back and forth quickly, creating electric current at the other end. People can stand in between the transmitter and the magnet and the radio frequencies will pass right through them, without any problem, in the same way your favorite radio station can broadcast a powerful signal in your neighborhood without physically affecting you.
Sound crazy? In June of last year researchers at MIT illuminated a 60-watt lightbulb that was seven feet from the power source.
Reliable, efficient wireless power, the researchers told me, is about a year or two away. Imagine all those power lines disappearing, and all the cables in your house, which you used to trip over, going into the recycling bin. You heard it here first.
Paul Hochman is the gear and technology editor for the TODAY Show and a Fast Company magazine contributor. He covered the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Athens and Torino, Italy, for TODAY. He was also a three-year letter winner on the Dartmouth ski team and has a black belt in karate. Paul’s blog can be found at: